Skin Cancer Awareness Month – How to Identify Skin Cancer

May 8, 2019

Woman trying to identify skin cancer

Throughout the month of May, we’re highlighting important information everyone should know about skin cancer. This week, Dr. Jessica Dorsey of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Cedar Park and Austin, TX, is going to walk us through the different types of skin cancer and how you can tell the difference. Performing self-exams each month is essential, but first, you need to know what you’re looking for. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, but when detected and treated early, it has a high cure rate. Keep reading to learn more about how to identify skin cancer, so you can call your care team at U.S. Dermatology Partners for diagnosis and intervention in the earliest and most treatable stages.

How to Identify Skin Cancer: Actinic Keratoses

Actinic keratoses (AK) are actually pre-cancers. Technically benign, AKs develop due to years of sun exposure, and if they develop, you are at greater risk for developing malignant forms of skin cancer. AK spots are often called “horns” due to their larger base diameter with raised bumps that can hook creating an appearance similar to horns. AKs are typically thick, scaly patches of skin with pink or red coloring, but they can also be a white or silvery color. In most cases, people develop AKs on the parts of the body that receive the most sun exposure, including the back of the hands, face, ears, nose, scalp, shoulder, and lips. When AKs appear on the bottom lip, they may actually be a variant form of pre-cancer called actinic cheilitis.  If left alone, AKs can eventually become a skin cancer called a squamous cell carcinoma.

How to Identify Skin Cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) is the most common type of skin cancer. BCCs usually appear on the head and neck, but they can form on any part of the body and can be disfiguring. They are typically pink and shiny (pearly) bumps, but they can also appear scabby, scaly, or have darker spots within them. In some cases, they may even look like a white scar.

How to Identify Skin Cancer: Squamous Cell Carcinoma

The second most common form of skin cancer is Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). They are the hardest to detect because they can look so different in appearance from person to person. Most people detect an SCC due to its rapid growth and development. They usually appear quickly and can double in size in just a few days or a week. SCCs may be a red, domed bump, an ulcerous or scabbed patch of skin, a pink and scaly section, or an inflamed spot that bleeds easily when bumped.

How to Identify Skin Cancer: Melanoma

Melanoma is the third most common type of skin cancer, and it is also the most dangerous. Despite this risk, melanoma is almost always curable when detected in its earliest stages. Unlike other forms of skin cancer that develop in the outer layers of skin, melanoma develops in the melanocytes, the pigment cells that create skin tone and other skin coloration like freckles. Melanoma spots may start out looking like a benign mole or freckle, but they typically darken and evolve over time. They are usually brown or black in color, but they may start out pink or even white.

The ABCDE’s of Melanoma Identification

According to Dr. Dorsey, “If you’ve ever visited a dermatologist for a skin cancer-related concern, you likely heard about the ABCDE’s of melanoma. Knowing your ABCDE’s can help you determine whether or not the new or changing spot you’re looking at is something that might be considered cancerous.” Each month, you should do a thorough skin cancer self-exam by carefully checking your body for any lumps, scaly patches, bleeding spots, or changes in the skin’s color or texture. Specifically, look for the following features:

  • A – Asymmetry – one section of a mole or spot is bigger, wider, longer than other sections. In many cases, the asymmetrical section grows or changes rapidly.
  • B – Border irregularity – the edges of the mole or spot are not smooth. They may appear scalloped or jagged.
  • C – Color – depending on your skin tone, the color of certain spots may be perfectly normal, but if you ever have a mole or spot that has multiple colors or that changes colors, especially if it darkens, you may be dealing with something cancerous.
  • D – Diameter – pull out an old number 2 pencil if you still have one in the house. Look for any spots or moles that are bigger around than a pencil eraser.
  • E – Evolving – this is the most important. If you do a thorough self-exam every month, you should notice if you have a mole or spot that is changing. Rapid and/or prolonged change is often a warning sign of cancer development. This can include a change in appearance, a change in texture, or a change in symptoms such as bleeding, hurting or itching.

According to Dr. Dorsey, “Knowing your ABCDE’s is essential for early melanoma detection. Most people notice their mole growing quickly, asymmetrically and developing irregular borders rather than having a nice, perfect circle like a benign mole.” Keep in mind that melanoma does not need to have ALL of these characteristics.  Rather, use the ABCDEs as a tool to help you decide if a spot or spots should be evaluated by a professional.

Related: What Happens if you Let Skin Cancer go Untreated?

Signs Skin Cancer Has Returned

If you’ve had skin cancer successfully removed in the past, it’s completely natural to worry about recurrence. Following removal of BCC, SCC, or melanoma skin cancer, look for the following symptoms that may mean you need to come back in for a spot check with your dermatology team:

  • New or increased redness, inflammation, or scaling (skin thickening) around the skin cancer removal site or scar that develops after healing.
  • After the cancer removal site heals, bleeding in or around the scar can be indicative of a need for retreatment.
  • If the skin cancer removal site or scar changes color or develops spots of different coloring, you should come back in for a checkup.
  • If the surgical site continues to itch or is painful for a prolonged timeframe after surgery, it can be indicative of continued cellular degeneration, which may mean skin cancer recurrence.
  • If a new lump or bump forms and is similar in appearance to your previously removed skin cancer, you should contact the dermatologist right away. Those who have been previously diagnosed are at much higher risk for recurrence, so the sooner you come in to see us, the better.

When is it Time to See a Dermatologist?

All adults should visit a dermatologist at least once per year for a thorough skin examination. Dr. Dorsey encourages people to schedule their visit sooner rather than later saying, “If there is a spot on your body that is new, changing, bleeding, painful, or itchy, it is important to see a Board-Certified dermatologist for an evaluation. Your dermatologist has extensive, specialized training and knows what to look for.” After diagnosis, our dermatology teams can help you get the treatment you need. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing more information about skin cancer prevention, detection, and treatment, so make sure you come back to learn more. If you need an appointment with a skilled dermatologist, get started by filling out our convenient online request form. A U.S. Dermatology Partners team near your home will be in contact soon to schedule your appointment. If you live in Cedar Park or Austin, Texas, you can contact Dr. Dorsey and her team at U.S. Dermatology Partners Cedar Park or U.S. Dermatology Partners Spicewood Springs (Austin location).

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